It was eighth grade. I was sitting alone in the corner outside the dean’s office.
In trouble. Again.
It’s not that I was a wild child. Far from it. I was ordinarily very well behaved—a shy, bespectacled girl who always had a book in her hand. In fact, that was the problem. The book in my hand wasn’t the right book. The Dean of Students—let’s call her Ms. Epiphany—sternly called me into her office. The furniture was new—stick-like and uncomfortable, just like I felt.
“Mr. Clark tells me,” said Ms. Epiphany, “that you’re not paying attention in math class.”
Of course I wasn’t paying attention. Actually, many kids weren’t paying attention—but they weren’t being called into the dean’s office.
“That’s right,” I answered.
Ms. Epiphany slowly squared some papers on her desk. She wanted a simple apology—a promise that I wouldn’t do it again. She chose another tack, one closer to the real issue.
“Mr. Clark also tells me that you’re reading in math class.”
“I like to read,” I answered.
Ms. Epiphany swooped. “But you’re not supposed to be reading in math class. Books, I mean, that aren’t the math book.”
I stared coolly. “I want to tell you something. I hate math. Hate it. Math is useless. No one will ever make me study math. Not you. Not anybody.”
Ms. Epiphany stared, considering her options. There are times when reason is useless, and she was smart enough to know that this was one of them. Finally, almost hesitantly, she ventured, “Could you at least not be reading other books in math class?”
That was why I was in Ms. Epiphany’s office. Mr. Clark had taken to pulling my book from my hands in an effort to get me to pay attention. But since I’d started bringing a bag of books with me to class, Mr. Clark’s efforts were like trying to bail out a sinking boat—as soon as he walked by and snatched away one book, I pulled out another. It had turned into a public battle of wills for my attention.
“Since I’m not going to pay attention,” I told Ms. Epiphany, “I might as well spend my time doing something worthwhile. So I’m going to read books I like.” The books I liked were novels, history books, and adventure stories; in other words, anything that provided new perspectives and interesting ways of looking at life—ways that had nothing to do with math or science.
That was that. I went back to class with my stack of literature. Mr. Clark never bothered me again. Of course, just as with many math and science courses before and after my talk with Ms. Epiphany, I flunked Mr. Clark’s class.
Today, some forty years later, Ms. Epiphany and Mr. Clark would be shocked to discover I’m now a happy professor of engineering, able to sling a differential equation and navigate the nuances of Bayes’ Theorem. The girl who had absolutely no interest or aptitude for math and science from kindergarten through high school aced a doctorate in those subjects as an adult.
How did I do it? Why did I do it?
I enlisted in the Army straight out of high school, because it was one of the few jobs I could get that would actually pay me to learn another language. I studied Russian and my love of adventure eventually led me to work as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea. By the time I left the Army at age twenty-six, I had gradually realized that although language and culture are important, math and science—counter to my early intuitions—are important in life, too. In fact, some of the most interesting professions required a solid grounding in math and science. I’d always sought new perspectives and adventures. So why not try one of the most challenging adventures of all—seeing if I could master the very subjects I’d always felt I couldn’t learn?
I decided to turn my attention to studying math and science. I was older now, with a worldly perspective that wouldn’t allow me to fall back on my old excuses of lack of interest or aptitude. I had to find a way to power through. I ultimately stumbled on three simple yet powerful approaches—solidly based, as it turned out, on modern cognitive neuroscience—that can help anyone master tough subjects.
1. Learn when to stop.
When I first began to study math and science seriously, I made the mistake of forcing myself to sit and work on a problem until I figured it out. Naturally, I often felt deeply frustrated and on the edge of quitting. I slowly began to realize that although persistence is important in learning, misplaced persistence can actually stop learning from taking place. I found that it was best to work only up to the point where I wasn’t making any headway and frustration was kicking in. When that happened, I set the problem aside and either worked on something different or took a walk.
That turned out to be a good instinct. Now, science has shown that the brain has two fundamental modes of learning—focused and diffuse. One is an active state of concentration, and the second involves a more relaxed state of mind. You are generally in either one state or the other—in fact, being in one mode appears to block your access to the other mode!
When you are trying to learn new ideas and concepts, you need the wide-ranging perspectives of the diffuse mode. So the best thing you can do when learning something new is to first focus on the problem, and then stop for a while and do something else. This permits the largely unconscious diffuse mode to kick in, which in turn allows your brain to examine the problem in a fresh way. When you later return with your focused attention, you’ll be surprised at how often the solution jumps quickly to mind.
2. Slow down, back up, repeat.
I was always intimidated by students who quickly grasped complex ideas in math and science while I slogged along, struggling with even simple concepts. I felt like a hiker trudging at the edge of the trail while watching mountain bikers zoom past to the distant finish line. But with my determination to retool my brain and learn math and science, I looked at how I could best deal with my need for more time to grasp the concepts. I lightened up and slowed down, taking fewer classes than the other students so that I could concentrate on what I was learning.
By sidestepping the race to the finish line, I had the time to practice and repeat. Consequently, I learned more deeply—like the hiker who smells the pine forest and spots the rabbit trails as the bicycles obliviously speed by. By slowing down initially, I was later able to speed up, because I had a solid understanding of the fundamentals. I will never be a person who catches on quickly in math and science. But that’s okay—surprisingly often, I see things that speedy thinkers miss.
3. Don’t procrastinate.
One of the easiest mistakes you can make in learning something difficult is to procrastinate. As we have found out through research, learning something new is the mental equivalent of training in a sport—you are building neural structures just as athletes are building muscular structures. Starting too late forces you to try to build neural networks in a hurry. Therefore, you need to go against your instinct to avoid the difficult subject you’re tackling, and instead start earlier than you ordinarily would. This gives your brain the time it needs to go back and forth between the focused and diffuse learning modes and build the neural structures it needs to process the new information.
I did it. I rewired myself to master subjects that I once found impossibly challenging. And if I can rewire the kid in the dean’s office to become a professor of engineering—you can do it, too.